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Rhetoric, Public Memory, and Forgetting

Leaders: Bradford Vivian, Syracuse University; Carole Blair, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

  Rhetoric, Public Memory, and Forgetting

Bradford Vivian (Syracuse University)
Carole Blair (University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill)

This workshop will address the broad theme of rhetoric and public memory via an unconventional theme.  It will provide an occasion for public memory scholars to investigate the rhetoric, politics, and ethics of forgetting in relation to traditional intellectual as well as popular assumptions about public memory.

Myriad writings on memory in the Western tradition (from philosophy, theology, literature, psychology, and politics) have persistently identified forgetting as a destructive force that must be combated in order to preserve human knowledge, artistic achievement, and moral or political wisdom.  Liberal-democratic commitments to cultivating memory as a moral response to historical atrocity, or to avoiding forgetfulness and the recurrence of tragic human failings it breeds, is one of the hallmarks of contemporary Western culture and politics.  Thus, historical as well as present-day idioms of memory in the Western tradition conventionally associate forgetting with communal decay, violence, destruction, and even death.

This workshop will ask students and scholars to examine recent literature in public memory studies that reconsiders the conventionally negative value of forgetting as a dimension of public memory.  Briefly stated, the readings will fall into two broad categories: 1) overviews of historical texts or practices in which forgetting was seen, contrary to conventional wisdom, as an occasionally beneficial practice; and 2) contemporary intellectual reflections on whether a renewed appreciation of forgetting might hold value in a culture that some have said now suffers from a surplus of memory (in the form of public archiving, historical documentation, data storage, and the like).

By way of these readings, the workshop will address the following questions:

  • What are the rhetorical, political, and moral advantages or disadvantages of defining memory and forgetting as antithetical forces in human history, knowledge, and culture?
  • Is it possible, even desirable, to redefine memory and forgetting as complementary rather than mutually exclusive attributes of communal life?
  • What past or present rhetorical sources could one employ in order to identify the theoretical or practical value of forgetting to public culture?
  • How would such a revised understanding of forgetting oblige us to reconsider prevailing academic or public commitments to preserving public memory?
  • In what specific rhetorical situations might we be able to observe and evaluate the material effects of communal remembering and forgetting?

In addition to providing a forum for open and sustained dialogue about these critical issues in public memory studies writ large, the workshop will also encourage discussion of how participants' individual research enhances our understanding of the rhetorical relationship between remembering and forgetting in public life.

For inquiries, contact Bradford Vivian:

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